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Creating the modern urban research university

Behind Georgia State University’s data-driven success
University Business, March 2016

Soon after becoming president of Georgia State University in 2009, Mark P. Becker set out to answer a question: How can you create a better university, in the heart of a large, diverse city, where many of your students are first-generation or low-income, and who face challenges not seen as commonly at a typical flagship institution.

The answer was found in a strategic plan that incorporated data tracking and analysis—and a team of what Becker calls “specialty advisors”—designed to increase student persistence and help them graduate into careers that benefit the community and region.

“Our goal is to be a research university in an urban core with a very diverse student body,” Becker says, “but with academic results that look like those you’d see at other research universities that are less diverse and not located in urban areas.”

You’ve said your goal is to create a new kind of urban research university. What did you mean?

The urban research university we’re creating has a very diverse student body. And that’s not just race and ethnicity, but it’s also income levels. It’s nontraditional students, traditional students. It’s a far more diverse student body than you’ll find at research universities in general.

On top of that, we expect the graduation rates of our students to be much higher than the national norm for urban research universities.

Urban universities tend to be more diverse and have more low-income and first-generation students. But we don’t accept that as a reason for low retention and graduation rates. The work that we’ve being doing on student success has been to move the graduation rates up dramatically.

How does this pay off in the region?

Well, if you talk to corporate America, they want to hire an employee workforce that looks much more like their customer base, and that has not historically been the case. But as the nation is becoming more diverse, having a diverse pool of graduates is much more sought after.

We find that our students are in demand because, besides getting an excellent education, they help the corporate sector achieve their larger goal of having a workforce that is more reflective of the general community.

Your goals require buy-in from all parts of the university. Has the culture changed at all to help foster that?

When I came here in 2009, I conducted a listening tour and I asked, “What do you most value about Georgia State University?” Out of all those interviews, all but one started with diversity; that the diversity of our student body is unique to the university as compared to many research universities.

The buy-in, if you will, was already in the culture. So it really didn’t take a sea change. What it took was a commitment to implementing the plans. We had to make investments. We had to go out and seek money, including philanthropy for more student financial support. A big issue is access to scholarships and financial support for students. And it also required us to change how we support our students in terms of advising and academic support.

I know that a key part of that effort involves data tracking and analysis.

Predictive analytics, yes. We partnered with the Education Advisory Board, a group out of Washington, D.C. Their original business was healthcare, which, if you think about it, has a number of similarities to higher ed—a lot of decentralization, even reliance on third-party payers. We were one of the early institutions to start working with them.

The system we’re using began with a database of every grade for every student for every course, for more than a decade, and we’ve been adding to it. So we started with 10 years of data—every student, every grade, every course. That was used to build a predictive model so that once a student is with us, we can start seeing the likelihood that they are progressing toward graduation.

How does it work?

Every night the system updates more than 400 variables. Some of those variables, like semester grades, don’t change as often. Others do. And when it does the updates, it checks every student to see whether they are on track.

If an alert goes off—if the algorithm says there may be an issue—both the student and the advisor are notified. The student and the advisor then have a face-to-face meeting to address whatever issue has been identified by the system.

This predictive analytics system triggered 43,000 face-to-face meetings between advisors and students last year, and we have roughly 25,000 undergraduates.

But those 43,000 meetings aren’t all about serious issues are they?

No, mostly small adjustments. I use a simple metaphor to describe it. You are driving a car on a journey toward graduation. If the car starts to move slightly off the road, you make a small adjustment in the steering wheel, you stay on your trip. If you don’t, the car eventually veers off and crashes.

The adjustment can be as simple as the system alerting you that there will be a really hard course you need to take next semester. Based on your performance characteristics, your advisor might suggest that you build time into your semester schedule to get extra help in that difficult course. You may even need tutoring.

Or the system may tell you that you are not likely to graduate in your major, so you’ll meet with your advisor to discuss majors that interest you, but that also fit well with your own performance characteristics. The advisor can bring up a computer screen that will recommend majors. Then you can see what the requirements are.

The system shows red, yellow, green for every course you have to take. Green means you are expected to do well in that course. Red means you will struggle mightily. Yellow is the middle ground where it looks like you may have difficulty.

So we’re trying to provide a lot of information to the student. Not just what they seem well-suited to, but what kind of jobs does that lead to and what kind of salaries are associated with those jobs. So the student can make an informed decision from the point of view of what interests them, what they’re good at, and what may be a pathway for them in their career once they successfully complete.

That’s extremely proactive.

And that’s exactly how we describe it—proactive advising. Historically, if the student was having trouble, they went to see their advisor after the fact. By being proactive, you can make those small adjustments early on—you can avoid wrecking or crashing and stay on the journey.

What is different about the advising staff at Georgia State?

They’re professional advisors. That was one of the changes we made as a result of the strategic plan. Historically, we were organized like most universities, where advising was left to departments and dean’s offices. As we looked at the data—and everything we do in this area is very much informed by the data— we saw that students were making ill-advised choices.

For example, we had a lot of students who were basically just circulating in the system. They were accumulating credits but not getting any closer to a degree. They might have 130 credit hours, 10 more than required to graduate, but they couldn’t graduate within a semester or two because the credits they were accumulating didn’t apply toward the major that they had selected. They were sampling too broadly.

So at the same time we partnered with The Education Advisory Board, we decided to centralize advising with specialty advisors. We have advisors who specialize in health professions, or in business, liberal arts, sciences, and other disciplines.

The payoff has been impressive graduation rates, especially among minority populations.

Twelve to 15 years ago graduation rates for an urban university were typically around 30 percent. We committed in our 2011 strategic plan to take that to 60 percent, which is still not quite at the level of what you might see at the more traditional research universities, but a huge increase from where we used to be.

Right now, halfway into the plan, we are at 54 percent and on schedule to hit our target and beyond. Our African Americans, our Hispanic students, our Asian American students, our Caucasian students all graduate at similar rates, and at a level that’s above the national average. Our Pell-eligible students graduate at a rate that’s almost identical to our non-Pell students. Actually, some years it’s even a percentage point higher.

I think the signature achievement of our system is we’ve eliminated all disparities in graduation rates based on race, ethnicity or income.

Tim Goral is senior editor.

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